The Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a progressive think tank based at UW-Madison, has launched a website that is clearly meant to draw comparisons to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Why call it ALICE otherwise?
At the same time, director Joel Rogers takes pains to distinguish the American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange from ALEC, which has drawn heightened national attention this year and the ire of progressives for pushing corporate-driven model legislation in statehouses around the country.
Billed as a one-stop, web-based public library of progressive law on state and local issues, ALICE is an "antidote" to ALEC, says Rogers.
But unlike ALEC, which heralds "limited government," "free markets" and "federalism," ALICE's core values are democracy, sustainability and equality, says Rogers.
The ALICE website provides "model" legislation as well as "exemplary" laws that are deemed worthy of replication. Scholars, policymakers, activists and students around the country contribute, and ALICE also provides background research and talking points on the legislation.
Unlike ALEC, adds Rogers, ALICE won't be working jointly with business groups or take corporate contributions.
The launch of the website has raised predictable questions about whether such an endeavor is an appropriate activity for a university-based center.
"Should UW be backing ALICE?" read the headline on Chris Rickert's Oct. 6 column in the Wisconsin State Journal.
Rickert asked state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Elections, and UW System, whether ALICE is "a political group being improperly propped up by a public university."
She said she would have to see.
Rogers dismisses any political motive, saying ALICE is values based, but not partisan. "We give advice to Democrats, Republicans and Greens," he says.
And as Marc Eisen argued in a recent Isthmus column
COWS, though based on campus, does not receive any university funding and is mainly supported by government grants and foundations, says Rogers.
He argues the work of ALICE is the very essence of the Wisconsin idea: "To use whatever brains and research are available to suggest things that will improve the general welfare.
"I am completely unapologetic about people at the university pushing model legislation," he adds.
UW political science professor Donald Downs points out that UW-Madison is the birthplace of some of the country's hallmark laws, including Social Security and Unemployment Compensation.
An expert on academic freedom and First Amendment issues, Downs notes that he runs a center on campus that, like COWS and the Havens Center, has an "orientation." The Wisconsin Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, he says, leans conservative and libertarian, while Havens and COWS lean left.
Disseminating research is one thing; advocating a position is where things can get gray, says Downs. But even that can be okay, he adds.
"I think that is something that academic freedom does protect," Downs says. "I think it's okay for professors even in class to take a position on things. I think students want them to."
But engaging in partisan politics would cross the line.
"There is no room for that," says Downs. "Certainly not in class. And I don't think a center should be partisan either."